List #8: The Eternal Synecdoche of Being Adapted

  • Reading time:5 mins read

One of the few lists in this series that one could call more or less complete.

Charlie Kaufman is one of only a handful of screenwriters in history to know widespread name recognition. Whatever directors, producers, or stars he involves, it’s Kaufman’s scripts that drive and define his projects. And his scripts are certainly distinctive.

The movies in this list are either prime Kaufman or in another universe they might well have been. These stories are neurotic tales of love and self-loathing narrated through devices of surreal psychological whimsy. Secret doors into the brains of boring celebrities! Selective memory erasure! Building a complete replica of life, then succumbing to the replica!

If you feel that a movie has already accounted for every possible reaction you might have, leaving you nothing intelligent to say about it, it belongs on this list.

Adaptation

Maybe the best Kaufman movie, probably the most representative, definitely the definitive one — and also one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies.

In the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s ponderous The Orchid Thief, the character of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) writes himself into the screenplay. He also writes in his more superficial yet somehow more likable twin, Donald (also Nicolas Cage). Problems arise when Donald decides that he too wants to write movies, and starts to produce dial-a-plot scripts that are actually much more successful than the work that causes Charlie so much distress. Charlie’s heightened search for authenticity leads him down a dangerous path.

Being John Malkovich

Kaufman’s first movie to gain him wide recognition is also sort of a litmus test. This movie is bizarre enough, and leaves enough unstated between the levels of its absurdity, for viewers to get a pretty quick sense of whether Kaufman speaks to them. When people get this movie, it’s one of the most delightful things they’ve ever seen. When they don’t get it, it’s almost painful. There’s very little in between, aside from a certain nervous confusion. Not Kaufman’s best work, or his most representative, and far from his most appealing. Rather, BJM is a sort of a tutorial. You like this, there’s much more in the wings for you. You don’t, you’d better get out now.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Probably the least of Kaufman’s movies, and a hair away from decanonization. For his first directorial gig, George Clooney decided to put his mark on every aspect of the production — including the script. His changes are often arbitrary and a little strange. “I had a movie that I wrote,” Kaufman later groused, “and that isn’t it.” Still, the Kaufman flavor remains and Clooney did make several interesting decisions — particularly in some very long single takes.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The only Kaufman movie to achieve real mainstream success, and most of that success is despite Kaufman’s script. You see a few boilerplate responses to this movie. Often people will say, yeah, the movie was really pretty and sad, and Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey were great in it, but the story was confusing and weird. Others will say, yeah, it was pretty but the casting was weird and the story was stupid. Others will say, yeah, the script was great and the casting was interesting, but the direction called way too much attention to itself. Others will say, ih, it’s Kaufman lite. Familiar themes, but assembled well enough and interpreted onto film with a minimum of problems. Sweet and comforting in a way that Kaufman usually isn’t.

Human Nature

The first Kaufman/Gondry collaboration, and one of the lesser results so far, Human Nature comes off as a familiar goofball comedy with a few distinctly weird moments. The best part is the Tim Robbins character, whose experiments with white mice and mental wiring are not unlike Tom Wilkinson’s clinician in Eternal Sunshine. As with several early Kaufman scripts, Human Nature bounced around Hollywood for the best part of a decade before someone new to Hollywood (usually and in this case a music video director) who didn’t understand the risk dove in and made it happen.

A Scanner Darkly

Kaufman wrote a script for this. It’s out there on the Internet, if you know where to look. Eventually, the movie went in a totally different and less interesting direction. You know how Hollywood works.

Synecdoche, New York

Kaufman’s third collaboration with Jonze, and his first as director, Synecdoche is about as far down the Charlie train as it seems possible to travel. A playwright receives a little recognition and a weird grant, and decides to produce his own magnum opus — a play that encompasses the entire experience of life. That play is contained in an impossibly huge hangar, and as an accurate depiction of the playwright’s life also contains sub-plays that contain sub-plays that contain sub-plays. The play consumes so much of the playwright’s life that his family falls apart around him — and all he can do is observe and use the material for his play. Eventually the play takes on a will of its own, and the line between life and art is destroyed.

List #7: Writer’s Block is a Killer

  • Reading time:2 mins read

I kind of like this one. Still a work in progress, but offhand these six are all that came to me.

You sit at your desk and stare at your screen, or your typewriter. You’re so desperate to produce something great that you freeze up and your imagination goes in every other direction at once. Nothing good can come of this situation, especially when you yourself are fictional.

Adaptation

Charlie Kaufman is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, into a screenplay. In his desperation he winds up writing himself into the story. It all goes to hell from there.

Alan Wake

You play as a popular writer, stuck for progress in your new novel. As you mope and sulk around your small town, the characters from your book start to come to life around you. It all goes to hell from there.

Barton Fink

A snooty New York playwright comes to L.A. to write for the movies. The studio puts him up in a questionable hotel, under questionable management, in the company of questionable guests. It all goes to hell from there.

Secret Window

Before his divorce, Johnny Depp used to be a successful writer. Now it’s all he can do to type a paragraph before returning to bed. One day he hears a knock on his cabin door. On answer, he beholds a strange fellow who accuses Depp of plagiarism. It all goes to hell from there.

The Shining

Jack Nicholson is an abusive father with a drinking problem. In an attempt to put all of that behind him, he takes some time off from work to manage an abandoned hotel over the winter, and concentrate on his book. It all goes to hell from there.

Throw Momma from the Train

Billy Crystal deals with his writer’s block by teaching community college. One of his students, Danny Devito, writes inept revenge fantasies about his own mother. Crystal suggests that Devito watch a Hitchcock movie for inspiration. It all goes to hell from there.

List #6: The Best Silent Films

  • Reading time:3 mins read

One of the most painfully incomplete of all the lists, and one of the final ones I began before the list function stopped working. Had it kept going for a day or two, this list would be much broader. It did last long enough for someone to add Man with the Movie Camera and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. I notice I again say very little about the movies, and tend to be rather… emphatic. Again, though, this is meant to serve as a conversation starter.

Pure cinema isn’t about sound or color; all of that is nice, and can complement a film’s message, but at its core film is all about the picture — how frame to frame, shot to shot, scene to scene, changes and juxtapositions in subject and composition carry meaning. Accordingly, sometimes the most elegant films are those free of our modern distractions.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

One of the most influential of silent films, of German expressionist film, and of the early horror genre. The set design embodies the expressionist ideal in a way that no subsequent film could equal without imitating. This is also the movie to popularize the idea of the twist ending. Lots of stuff going on here.

Metropolis Restored

The biggest masterpiece of the German expressionist film school (depending on where you draw your boundaries), and template for nearly every utopian future vision of the last 90 years, Metropolis also still holds up well as a movie — at least, when it’s restored and reassembled enough that you can make sense of the storyline. The cinematography is gorgeous, and at least 40 years ahead of its time. Even now some of the special effects are kind of astounding.

Modern Times

One of the last films of the silent era, and intended as Chaplin’s first talkie — a decision nixed fairly late in the game — Modern Times is probably one of Chaplin’s greatest and most iconic films ever. It expresses many of the same industrial age concerns as Lang’s Metropolis, but from a satirical rather than a allegorical perspective. Also notable for a kind of unexpected cocaine gag.

Nosferatu

The first and arguably still the best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was nearly lost to the world. Murnau didn’t pay for the rights to the novel, you see, so Stoker’s widow won a court injunction and ordered that every copy of the film be destroyed. Good thing that didn’t work out for her, as nearly every classic horror film (including Browning/Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula) would be out a set of crucial influences. Nearly every shot is a masterpiece that could stand on its own. The acting is ridiculous in retrospect, but whatever. The problem is finding a good restoration. The recent Kino one is probably the best bet.

List #5: The Best of Film Noir

  • Reading time:8 mins read

I’ve a few more I would have added to this, had it taken off. There’s all the neo-noir stuff. Proto-noir. Lost Highway, Blade Runner. Maybe even Ghost in the Shell, which I still think is a kind of brilliant piece of cinema. I would also have liked to have said more about several of these films. Shadow of a Doubt deserves more than a passing mention. I think I was just in a rush. Ah well; this ain’t serious analysis. This is just content for a social site — a starting place for conversation.

Film noir is about more than fedoras and hard-boiled dialog. It’s about dark and light and imagery framed just right to suggest a creeping sense of doom. If something can go wrong, it will. If there’s the slightest doubt about an alliance, particularly with a femme fatale, it will be broken. And you’ll see it coming, because of where people stand, where the shadows fall, and what angles we have on the action. This is bleak, expressive stuff derived right out of German expressionism. And these movies play all the notes like the most beautiful dirge in the ghetto.

The Big Sleep

Aside from The Maltese Falcon, this is the other film that solidified noir as a genre. Famously, the film’s plot makes little sense if you care to pay attention. That’s okay; you’ve got Bogey and Bacall barking out the words of Raymond Chandler by way of William Faulkner (of all people), and coaxed forth by that director of directors, Howard Hawks. Yikes. The moment-to-moment is what makes this movie.

Chinatown

At the time, Chinatown was sort of a throwback to the films of a generation earlier. Yet it’s more than a noir revival; it filters the tropes and decorations of a 1940s detective movie through a 1970s film sensibility. This isn’t just a film about good guys and bad guys, and a certain spirit of the time; it grounds all of that in history, and the change of an era for a whole urban center. It’s a bit of a slow burner, but the more you think about it the more profound the movie becomes.

Double Indemnity

A loathsome insurance salesman sidles up to a pretty lady to plan the perfect murder — and to get double the insurance money off its back. At first everything seems to go according to plan. If it just weren’t for the annoying competence of the man’s coworkers…

One noir of many by Billy Wilder, and one clean-cut figure of many tarnishing his reputation in the sleaziest of sleazebag roles. Fred MacMurray later told stories of old men walking up to him on the street and slapping him or screaming in his face for his actions in this movie. He tried to explain the difference between an actor and a role, but the point was a little too abstract for audiences of the time.

Key Largo

John Huston teams up again with Humphrey Bogart, who brings along Lauren Bacall for extra flavor. Oh, and Edward G. Robinson, see? Yeah. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Yeah. Some amazing dialog in here, rife with double entendre. The thing about the Hayes Code is that it didn’t so much wipe out on-screen lasciviousness as it forced it to be subversive, and to smolder in the little pauses and glances that nobody would think of censoring.

M

Film noir borrows heavily from German expressionism, particularly as seen in movies like The Third Man, with its Dutch angles and deep shadows. The grandmaster of German expressionism, Metropolis director Fritz Lang, would later move to Hollywood and direct several of the most important noir films to follow in the black bird’s wake. Before he left Germany, however, he directed perhaps his greatest film, the proto-noir story of a hounded child killer, M. Amongst the movie’s landmarks are the introduction of later Maltese Falcon star Peter Lorre and Lang’s own first experiments in sound production. M is very nearly a silent film; when there is sound, it is very important and very well-done. We take so much for granted these days. No Femme Fatale, but ih. Close enough.

The Maltese Falcon

The original film whence emerges all noir. Curiously enough, it’s actually the third adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel — by the same studio, within ten years. Well, third time’s a charm. The casting is impeccable. The shots and the editing are perfect to the last.

This was John Huston’s first directing gig, if you can believe it. And he did it right across town at the same time as Welles was busy with his little opus about a newspaper mogul and a sled. This one has aged much better.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

A satire so dry that you’re never quite sure if it’s meant to be funny or not. The Coens load all the noir tropes onto a mundane story about pathetic people, that grows increasingly weird as it goes along. Since it’s the Coens, and since just about every Coen movie is informed by some combination of Night of the Hunter and The Big Sleep, they pull it off with panache. You can watch it on a couple of levels: hunt for the absurdity or take it straight. Either way, it’s probably the most subtle movie they’ve directed so far. While we’re talking about the Coen Brothers, also see The Big Lebowski.

The Naked City

A sort of revolutionary guerrilla cinematography style that was hugely influential on later generations.

Night and the City

Everyone in this story is a complete jackass. Consequently, at first the movie was a complete bomb. See if you can spot a trend here. About a decade later, as people started to actually think about film as an expressive medium, suddenly the movie shot right up the scale and became one of the most important films in the genre.

The Night of the Hunter

You can call it noir, you can call it southern gothic. You can call it a tremendous, career-ending flop. You can call it visionary. Night of the Hunter is one of the most influential films that you probably have never seen. You know that business where a tough man will write “love” and “hate” on his knuckles, to distance himself from his actions? That comes from here. Every Coen Brothers movie references this film at least once. And for once in a career as the handsome action hero, Robert Mitchum plays a nightmarishly evil dude.

Shadow of a Doubt

Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his catalog, and not without reason.

Strangers on a Train

Hitchcock may be known more for thrillers and horror than for out-and-out noir, but Strangers is about as black as noir gets and about as good. Two guys meet on a long train ride. One, a rising tennis star; the other, a deranged stalker. The second fellow proposes a grotesque, if hypothetical, scenario. The first fellow is polite and brushes him off. The second fellow takes that as a go. And oh boy, is the first fellow in for a ride.

Sunset Boulevard

You can never go too wrong with Billy Wilder, and this just may be Wilder’s best ever. William Holden is an out-of-work writer, and Gloria Swanson is a faded star lost in her own head. When the two get together, expect nothing well to come of it. You kind of get that from the first shot, in which the protagonist is lying face-down in a swimming pool, musing in voiceover about his own death.

The Third Man

Graham Greene, Joseph Cotton, and Orson Welles in his best film role. Some of the most gorgeous and most influential cinematography ever. Such an interesting sense of pace, with that shock reveal halfway through and that extended final shot. One of the greatest films ever made.

Touch of Evil

Welles jumps back into the action in a troubled masterpiece, whittled out of a B-movie against the studio’s every protestation. You know how Welles was, and how well he got along with film studios.

The version you’re likely to see now is the restored one, edited and tracked from Welles’ personal notes. Up until the late ’90s, you would have seen a more confusing edit with scenes omitted and switched around, virtuoso shots edited and obscured by captions, and the soundtrack drowned with a Henry Mancini score.

Considered an instant classic in Europe, and a total flop in the States. Europe had it right; despite some violently tight editing and an over-the-top performance from Welles himself, this is an extraordinary feat. Just watch out for the dangers of reefer!

List #4: Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi With a Puppet

  • Reading time:2 mins read

Again, an incomplete list. Fraggle Rock really belongs on here. I’d call it a notable work of television fantasy. No, really. This list got more interaction than most; other users added such entries as Star Trek (for the Tribbles) and Wars (for the Cantina scene alone, never mind Yoda).

Because sometimes nose ridges just aren’t enough.

The Dark Crystal

Jim Henson’s magnum opus, that is much more fondly remembered than was received at the time. Never mind the lushness of the world and the unexpectedly grim story. How did they make the puppets move like that?

Farscape

Australia’s major contribution to the TV sci-fi canon proves that aliens need not all look like white guys with bumpy foreheads, and that however outré they may look, aliens are people too. Mostly.

Labyrinth

David Bowie quotes The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, while disembodied hands grope Jennifer Connelly.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

It takes a while to click, but behind the junkyard production values and annoying premise is ten seasons of the best comedy writing that you’ll only understand a third of.

The NeverEnding Story

Such an elaborately designed and realized world that you could eat an apple core and not even notice.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro likes his puppets, and he likes his models, and he likes his prosthetics. He also likes a bit of CG, where it’s useful. If you can capture something in-camera, though, it’s best to do so. So for this dark and tragic fairy tale, we get some of the darkest, most clever puppetry captured on film.

Thunderbirds

Gerry Anderson’s original supermarionette series Thunderbirds was both by far his most popular and his most influential contribution to pop culture — at least in the UK. Elsewhere, not quite as much. Although at a glance the show looks goofy as all-get out, Thunderbirds largely plays itself straight, attempting a sort of real (if pulpish) drama with the materials at hand. Of especial note are the high quality of the miniature sets and props, and the talent behind the voice performances.

List #3: Sci-Fi for the Whole Family (Films and TV)

  • Reading time:5 mins read

As with the earlier lists, this is very incomplete. I left some obvious blanks (Star Wars) either because I didn’t want to discuss them or because I figured I would give the users an opportunity to fill some slots themselves. As usual, not much of that really happened.

2001: A Space Odyssey may be a high water mark for cinema, but try showing it to a kid. The kids may eat up their Power Rangers, but just watch their parents try to hold it down, never mind digest it. These shows and movies hit a sort of a golden mean, where even the snootiest adult will find some substance and even the most hyperactive kid will be entranced. Likewise, these are the tales that age with you. You liked ’em when you were in overalls and a bowl cut, and you like ’em even more when you’re 35 — and can afford the action figures on your own.

The Black Hole

Disney’s first PG-rated movie, and at the time the studio’s most expensive film project ever. While exploring a black hole, a research crew stumbles upon the hulk of a long-missing vessel. Upon exploration of the vessel, it seems that its entire crew, save one, has died; in its place is a collection of worker androids, over which the survivor Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) holds complete authority. Dr. Reinhardt reveals a curious and dangerous mission, while the crew of the research vessel develops suspicions about the robots.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

One of Gerry Anderson’s later and darker supermarionation series, Captain Scarlet traces an unfortunate ongoing conflict between Earth and an angry Martian race. The titular hero, having embraced a certain Martian power, has become effectively immortal; after fatal injury, his body can rebuild itself and restore him to life. Compared to earlier supermarionation series, Captain Scarlet has more realistically proportioned characters and more serious themes, with increased violence accompanying a larger gray area between right and wrong.

Doctor Who

Since 1963, Doctor Who has ticked off just about every genre and tone you care to imagine — horror, fantasy, period drama, spy action, hard sci-fi, spoof, fairy tale, and educational series. It’s been complex, simplistic, adult, childish, boisterous, dry, cheap, and expensive. Its one common factor for nearly 50 years is that Doctor Who is made for the entire family. The kids enjoy the monsters and the danger; adults enjoy the dialog and interplay amongst the actors. As you age, there’s always something else that you never noticed or another era that you’ve never explored. Doctor Who is for everyone in a way that mainstream sci-fi rarely manages.

Flight of the Navigator

Kid from the 1970s gets a lift from a UFO. His robot space ship, with the voice of Pee-Wee Herman, makes a mistake; although the trip took ten years, by traveling in the neighborhood of light speed the trip was near-instantaneous for the kid. Thus he is plopped into the 1980s with no clue what’s going on, much to his own horror and that of his much older parents. Just from the description, you can see that the story operates on a few levels. It’s also iconic 1980s weirdness, with Paul Reubens on fine form.

Galaxy Quest

Not the most original or sophisticated satire ever, but a pretty and well-assembled set of observations about sci-fi movie tropes, all roped into a pretty entertaining and expensive movie. For the kids it’s got action, peril, and gizmos. For the adults, there are the jokes and the references.

The Last Starfighter

An often-neglected gem from the mid-’80s, The Last Starfighter is two stories in one. For most of the movie you’ve got a frustrated trailer park kid embroiled in an interstellar war just because he played a single videogame pretty well. Meanwhile on Earth you’ve got his cranky android duplicate, trying vainly to carry on a normal life in the kid’s absence. Wrap it up with the first CGI model shots ever in a motion picture, and you’ve got a neato adventure for the kids paired with a droll human story for the parents.

Tron

Another early landmark in CG effects, Tron made up for its box office and critical disappointment with pop culture saturation. Its influence on the videogame industry, ’90s cyberpunk culture, and a generation of now-adults is illustrated by the fervor around the 2010 sequel — again a bit of a critical disappointment, but now that Tron is a franchise there’s little way that it can objectively flop. It’s always interesting to see how people used to think that computers work.

WALL-E

One of Pixar’s best movies is also one of its simplest. Until the second half of the movie there’s barely any dialog, and basically no dialog that matters. Wall-E conveys a fairly high-concept story about consumerism, waste, and the human tendency toward sloth in every aspect of self-governance, through the filter of two neurotic robots who find love and wonder outside of their rigid original programming.

List #2: Serious Science Fiction (Films and TV)

  • Reading time:8 mins read

Continuing the series begun with my dumb list of game movies, we take a very incomplete look at real attempts to do something speculative and interesting with film and TV. The idea was that, in addition to voting the entries up and down, people would add their own thoughts. This happened, a bit. Not much. Here we go alphabetically, again — which as before is not necessarily the order in which I wrote the material.

Most sci-fi just tries to entertain with some familiar archetypes — space ships, lasers, weird alien life forms. Some sci-fi uses the archetypes as a thin veneer over familiar drama that could be staged anywhere.

Real sci-fi does one of two things. Either it pushes a scientific concept to its logical extreme, to study the effects of that idea on everyday life, or it uses a scientifically plausible scenario to push cultural concepts to their logical extremes in order to comment on contemporary life.

Either way, hard science fiction uses a rational understanding of the universe to explore the irrational way that we interact with the world.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The first half is perhaps the only movie to attempt a completely accurate portrayal of space, and space travel. Even further, Clarke and Kubrick tried to envision a world in which space travel (of this plausible sort) was an everyday occurrence, scattered with familiar brands and services. This is literary sci-fi, on a screen. There’s no real debate.

Blade Runner – The Final Cut

What if androids became so sophisticated that there was no sure way to tell them apart from real people? And what if those androids were wholly owned by corporations — and only produced in the first place as a disposable labor force? What if corporations ran all government and police matters? What would all of this mean for the value of life?

Children of Men

For about 20 years, the human race has been infertile. This has caused gradual problems to the social infrastructure, such that the UK is one of the only organized societies left — that organization retained by force. A few people claim to have a cure to that infertility, but such a cure goes against the established organization. Also, any baby who, against the odds, happens to be born is an immediate treasure and contraband for scientists the world over. Children of Men is a very nuanced and thorough exploration of that central “what if” that drives all serious science fiction.

Contact

Carl Sagan worked on this film for about twenty years before it went before the cameras, and then died just before it happened. Somewhere in the middle he shrugged and compiled his materials into a lovely novel, about a female scientist who finds herself in the middle of a possible first contact situation. Her work is her life, and she puts all her faith in her empirical skills. As chaotic as the universe seems, ultimately it all makes sense if you pay enough attention and are rigorous enough in your methodology. Then she is presented with a completely inscrutable situation, where all she has to go on is her own subjective impressions. The movie is also good, though it boils the book’s themes down a bit much and weighs spirituality higher than it needs to be.

Gattaca

So what happens when designer babies become the norm, and everyone with money or connections is sure to weed out all but the “best” genetic traits in the next generation? You get a society split between the genetically predictable and the genetically random — the products of natural births. Although it’s illegal to discriminate, it’s also simple to test. And no halfway decent employer is going to want to rely on unpredictable elements. You can see where things go from here, and write the movie on your own. Not exactly the most subtle allegory, but a worthwhile effort.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Every day you wake up, and someone else seems a little… off. They look the same, they have all the same memories, but everything human about them seems to have vanished. There’s a science fiction explanation, but really this is a discussion about the isolation of modern post-industrial, urban and suburban life.

Both the 1978 and the 1956 versions of this film are excellent in their own ways. The remake is actually closer to the original vision of the 1956 film, previous to studio interference, and has an extra layer or two of social satire about the self-oriented change in American culture over the 1970s.

Moon

Sam Rockwell is (so far as he knows) the only custodian of a corporate Moon base. For three years, his only companion has been a dubious AI voiced by Kevin Spacey. Then Rockwell’s character gets into a major accident. When he wakes, everything is just a little off. And when he starts to pick at the corners, his whole worldview shifts by one leap after another.

This is neat stuff. It could practically be a stage play, if you ignore the detailed and plausible depiction of Moon life. Moon takes cues from earlier serious sci-fi films like 2001 and Solaris, then ambles off in its own direction to explore the rights of the individual and the meaning of life in a world where corporations dictate policy and own everything down to individual DNA.

The Outer Limits (1963)

As with any anthology series, the quality and focus of the show depends on the writer. As often as not, though, The Outer Limits serves as a menagerie of fairly erudite short-form speculative fiction. Each episode could well be a short story in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. What we lose in deep exploration of a premise, we gain in a shotgun of odd juxtapositions, observations, and half-formed ideas. The best episodes could easily be expanded into an intense, thoughtful two-hour feature. The worst, well — they’re over in 25 minutes.

Quatermass and the Pit

In one breath, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass is both trashy pulp and highbrow science fiction. In the US, his work is practically unknown; in the UK it’s as much part of the cultural DNA as, say, The Twilight Zone.

Over 26 years, Kneale wrote four TV serials. Three were adapted into slightly trashy yet much more watchable feature films. Of those, the third movie — Quatermass and the Pit — is probably the best Quatermass you’ll get, and also the most widely available. So that’s fortuitous.

While digging a subway line, engineers unearth the remains of an ancient space ship. All who contact the remains of its inhabitants start to behave oddly. The movie proposes various theories about the development of man and the significance of our subconscious impulses.

Solaris

This list should really include Tarkovsky’s 1972 original, but Soderbergh’s remake is worthwhile in its absence.

A station orbiting a distant planet has a strange effect on its personnel; they are constantly barraged with a warped sense of reality, built out of projections of their own memories. As it turns out, these projections are the attempts of an alien life form to communicate with the crew.

Adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris uses the material of space travel to delve into the human psyche and explore both our means of communication and our subjective concept of reality.

Soylent Green

A pretty good movie that is diminished a bit by its legacy. You watch this, you’re going to be waiting impatiently for that famous line — which turns out to be one of the last lines in an unusually long film. So there’s a bit of an anticlimax, if that’s how you come at it.

Whereas in Children of Men our waning resource is fertility, here it’s food production. You see, there has been a population explosion. Exactly the opposite problem. And it’s not that food is unavailable; it’s that whatever food is available is heavily controlled. Furthermore, you don’t want to know where they’re getting the raw materials.

Sunshine

Another near-future story in the vein of 2001, Danny Boyle’s astronauts drift in the opposite direction to Kubrick’s, toward the center of the solar system. For whatever reason, the Sun is dying. We have a fission device that may reignite the star, but only enough material on Earth to build two. The first got lost somewhere along the way, and now the backup team is all we’ve got. Along the way the second team finds the hulk of the first vessel, and goes to explore it. Not the best idea ever.

Sunshine does a good job at depicting space travel. Of particular note are sequences when crew members are forced to float through space unprotected. They survive, with heavy sunburn and decompression sickness; maybe they’ll need a couple of fingers amputated.

The story is interesting, too.

The Thing (1982)

Much more so than the 1951 Howard Hawks adaptation, John Carpenter’s film embodies the horror and paranoia of John Campbell’s novella. It’s basically your standard base under siege format, except crossed with a social and existential paranoia that you can apply to any number of real-world scenarios. Any person on the base could be the monster, including you. Beyond that, the imagination involved in the monster design is kind of extraordinary. It takes its memory not only of human anatomy but of every other life form, terrestrial or not, and adapts those features pragmatically to its current circumstances. Some very big picture thinking here.